FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Sep 29, 2009

scenes i love - the haunting

All this recent talk of Paranormal Activity has got me thinking about a movie I referenced in my review, The Haunting (1963). One of greatest haunted house movies ever made (if not THE greatest), it proves that what you hear but don't see can be more terrifying than any spectacle.


Jason Adams said...

Definitely THE greatest.

Stacie Ponder said...

I tend to agree, but then I think about The Shining. I consider it to be a hunted house film, too...and I can't decide which movie I love more. Can't I have them both??

Anonymous said...

But see, the Shining is a haunted HOTEL movie. Totally different category. So they both can be The Greatest in their respective fields!

Yes. Flimsy defenses are my specialty.

Curt Purcell said...

Wow, Stacie, I'm surprised to hear you trot out that myth, since you certainly seem to appreciate the power of spectacle. The only reason Lewton-esque suggestion has seemed to trump spectacle for so long in movies is because of the technical limitations of special effects, especially in horror movies without very big budgets.

If you don't have the technical means to sell your monster, then yeah, you're better off suggesting it. But there's no way a normal audience member's mind can fill in, in real time, something scarier than an imaginative director could devise if she really brought her A-game and had a budget and technical team that could really make it happen.

Bottom line: subtlety only trumps spectacle when the creator can't deliver on the spectacle. That being the case, I don't see anything especially praiseworthy about subtlety--to me, that's just making a virtue of necessity.

Stacie Ponder said...

Well, sure, I appreciate spectacle, but that's not all I enjoy in a horror film. I appreciate beer, but I also appreciate water.

Going on my personal experiences with horror films and what's worked for me, I'm gonna disagree with you 100%...but then my post probably already gave that away.

It's not about "imagining a monster" per se- even in a case like The Haunting, I don't have a clear image in my head about what that THING (for lack of a better term) on the other side of the door looks like, no. I react on a primal, instinctual level- it's a fear of the unknown, heightened by the director's use of sound, lighting, pacing and camera angles. I think it plays on the innate fear of the uncanny.

There's no "bottom line" here, and I'm not trotting out a "myth". I'm talking about my own opinion based on my own experiences. Your opinion differs and that's cool, but don't dismiss mine or make it seem as if I'm a dum dum for having it. :)

Anonymous said...

"But there's no way a normal audience member's mind can fill in, in real time, something scarier than an imaginative director could devise if she really brought her A-game and had a budget and technical team that could really make it happen."

I disagree, you may have a point if we are talking about something where the audience has to come up with something from scratch, but ghosts, monsters, etc. are something everyone has an idea about and well directed suggestion can easily tap into our subconsciousness and conjure up these images.
The "real time" part is problematic too, seeing that we're talking about a medium where time manipulation is an essential tool.

Probably no coincidence that Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity and -last but not least The Haunting are always mentioned as movies that really scared the audience (as opposed to terrify them or gross them out) and that a lot of the directors of successful "explicit" horror (I'm thinking Raimi, Carpenter, Friedkin) have all stated that the mixture between suggestion and effects is crucial and "show all" approaches don't work, no matter how good the effects are.

Verdant Earl said...

It's a good thing that Steven Spielberg didn't have the technical means to "sell his monster" back in the day, because "Jaws" became a much scarier film for exactly that reason. The shark, when we finally see it, is kind of ridiculous. Same thing with the alien in "Alien" at the end.

It can work. It has worked.

And "The Haunting" is one of those films where it worked wonderfully. Um, the original one. Of course.

Curt Purcell said...

First, Stacie, I didn't mean to be personally dismissive of you or your experience, and I'm sorry I wasn't more careful about not coming across that way.

I think there is a point of disagreement worth discussing here, though (I'll try not to let this comment run too long). The fact is, the view that suggestion is superior to spectacle in horror is very widespread among certain segments of horror fans and critics. I hear it expressed often enough in one form or another, and I think it's completely wrong.

I think suggestion has its uses, especially in foreshadowing and setting a tone or mood. But I think there also has to be a delivery in the form of spectacle, and whether and how a creator sells that is a real test of what they're capable of.

Would ALIEN have been scarier if Ridley Scott had taken the Val Lewton approach and basically made it THE HAUNTING in space? I don't think so, and I think it's a scarier and better horror movie--and a better "haunted house" movie--than THE HAUNTING. That's because they took the trouble to conceive and design a good, scary monster, and took the trouble to get the technical stuff right in selling it onscreen. There's tons of atmosphere, but also delivery, and that's where it's superior.

Anonymous, what I mean by "real time" is this--moviemakers typically have a lot more time to devise, conceptualize, design, etc. what will go on the screen than the span of the movie itself, which is all the time an audience member has for a suggestion to form some impression. Let's take that famous behind-the-door attack scene in Lewton's LEOPARD MAN. Even if you say that what the audience is invited to imagine there has been carefully prepared from the very beginning of the movie, that's still not much time for a mental picture to form, compared to how long another filmmaker might have taken to research such attacks and choreograph one for maximum effect if they wanted to do the scene with the door open and everything shockingly, gruesomely visible. I think that scene could be a LOT more horrific if a talented filmmaker with the proper technical means shot it as explicit spectacle rather than Lewton's suggestion.

I'm happy to grant your point and Stacie's, though, that even very well-conceived and well-executed spectacle needs to be supported by other techniques that would fall under the category of suggestion. I'm covering the comic book crossover BLACKEST NIGHT, which is supposed to be a kind of horror story told in the DC superhero universe, and one of the things I complained about was that, although the monsters look amazing, they aren't really scary, because none of the characters are acting afraid of them.

B. E., your point is incoherent. If Spielberg had the technical means to sell his monster in JAWS, it wouldn't have looked ridiculous when he presented it. As for ALIEN--really? You thought it looked ridiculous? Well, that's the risk creators take when they go big like that. Inevitably, some portion of the audience won't respond to it.

Sorry I ran so long here, Stacie. Again, no offense, and I only offer these remarks in the spirit of cross-blog give-and take. If you're not digging it, I'll stop. ;-)

MrB said...

Back in college, I used to get people together who had never seen it and watch the original. Occasionally someone would understand why it was great, but mostly they'd laugh at it.

Those kind of reactions are what brought us the lousy remake.

Stacie Ponder said...

Curt, please don't misunderstand- I love a point-counterpoint, and feel free to comment as often as you'd like! We can disagree all the live long day, that's fine. I'm just a bit hypersensitive to 'opinion as fact' and things devolving into insults. Not that you really insulted me, but, you know.

I mean, I AM a woman, of COURSE I'm hypersensitive! And a terrible driver.

Curt Purcell said...

Since way back in December, I've had it in the back of my mind to post a provocative rant at Groovy Age about Val Lewton and subtle horror. I'm afraid I brought too much of the provocative rantiness into my comment here. Sorry about that!

And just to be clear, I do like the original HAUNTING and consider it vastly superior to the remake. That was definitely a case where more was not better.

Stacie Ponder said...

"There's tons of atmosphere, but also delivery, and that's where it's superior."

I get what you're saying...I guess I don't always NEED that delivery for the film to feel satisfying.

As far as directors and capabilities go, well, in the particular instance of The Haunting, I don't think there's any arguing that Robert Wise was 1) capable of delivering spectacle and/or 2) had a decent budget to work with. This film was right after West Side Story and before The Sound of Music, so I believe his choices and restraint were deliberate.

Horror and comedy are incredibly subjective genres, I guess it goes without saying. I like a monster as much as the next gal, but sometimes I like the unknown to remain...well, unknown.

Where do you feel horror novels fall in with your line of reasoning?

Curt Purcell said...

Yeah, good point--horror fiction is necessarily suggestive to a certain degree, just because it isn't directly visual like films or comics.

Even so, TURN OF THE SCREW gets praised a lot for being subtle, suggestive, and ambiguous; to me, it's one of the most boring things I've ever forced myself to finish.

M.R. James gets praised a lot for the same reasons, but he actually puts quite a lot of horror right there on the page. I think his proper British style fools a lot of people into thinking he's more reserved than he really is. Anyway, I enjoy his stories tremendously.

Just because prose writers don't have literal images available to them doesn't mean they can't put the monster on the page. They just have to construct the images out of words.

The approach I'm taking in my own novel is to try to write very "visually" and be as overt and explicit as the medium permits. When I said I consider it a test of a creator, how well they deliver and sell their monsters, I consider that my test as a writer, and to me, leaving the big stuff to readers' imaginations would feel like a cop-out, like I'd be foisting off on them the heavy-lifting it's really my job to do. If I can't "show" them something scarier than they could imagine on their own, I have no business writing horror, period.

A lot of writers I've read seem awfully gun-shy about going for it and delivering on their monsters, like they're nervous the result would be ridiculous. Well, if that were the case, it's all on them, that would be their failure as a writer, not because monsters inevitably come off as ridiculous.

I know that probably sounds dogmatic, but like I said, this is a core guiding principle for me in my own writing.

I'm sorry I haven't kept up very well with your own forays into creating horror--how have you been approaching it?

supreme nothing said...

The Haunting is such a terrific film. If I recall correctly, the only effect is that bedrrom door pushing in and out. The rest of it is storytelling and atmosphere used to it's potential. Great great movie!

By the way, I like your "scenes I love' tag. Nice to look back at some of those posts and think "Oh yeah, I remember that!"

I'm new to your blog, but this won't be my last visit. :)

Christian A. Dumais said...

Subtle or in-your-face approach to storytelling depends on the story really. In the case of THE HAUNTING - and especially in its source material (Shirley Jackson's classic novel) - it's the ambiguity that makes it work so effectively. And this is where a lot of people tend to check out, as mentioned above with James' THE TURN OF THE SCREW.

Personally, I love both approaches, especially in film. But the scares that have remained with me long after the movies are over were the ones that were subtle. The ending for THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was probably a little too subtle and low-key for an audience consumed with hype, but that ending stayed with me for a long time, especially once you digest the larger story and connect the dots.

I'm reminded of Lovecraft's writing, when he'd spend pages describing the street or a wall, and then once the monster is finally introduced, he dismissively writes that the monster was indescribable. But he knew the score, as a lot of the great horror writers do: you can open the door a little bit when conveying terror, but if you throw open the door completely, you're going to lose more readers than gain.

Anyway, not sure if I contributed to the conversation, but you all got me thinking. I'll be writing a lot about this stuff on my site ( in October.

Gryphon said...

Suggestion v. Spectacle.

I don't think one or the other is better or worse - both can be botched, and either one is a legitimate choice.

Really the tone of the material should determine this. THE HAUNTING was an A list picture, as was THE INNOCENTS (based on TURN OF THE SCREW - I didn't like the book, either, but the film is terrific). The source materials, in both cases, were all about achieving effects through subtlety, and an emphasis on spectacle would be an almost certain failure.

Robert Wise cut his teeth working for Lewton, and it is pretty certain that the subtle horror in THE HAUNTING and AUDREY ROSE was a matter of preference, not budget. His SciFi output combines both. Lewton didn't have the budgets for a lot of effects, but I'm still not convinced that he would have produced effects laden films even if the money had been there. Those films are as good as, or better than, their competition without them. Would Tourner have given us a transformation scene in CAT PEOPLE if he could have? I doubt it. (The demon in CURSE OF THE DEMON is a pretty good one, and he was against that.) The shot in which the panther tracks become Simone Simon's high heels remains one of the most elegant and provocative transformations in cinema, as far as I'm concerned. If it's because they didn't have the money to show it, I'm glad.

Just because you CAN, it doesn't mean you SHOULD. As much as I love spectacle (done right), too often it seems like a brainless way to go. Lately, I'm not frequently impressed, and the best horror films now seem (to me, anyway) to be ones that aren't - THE RAPTURE, CRASH, SAFE, CRUISING, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA...
not all of these could be called subtle, but they are movies that derive more punch from the nasty games they play with your head than any monster I've seen for a long time.

Bottom line - I think a few filmmakers really believe that less is more, and that some audiences don't watch movies for spectacle alone. I'd rather be affected by what I'm seeing, and all the spectacle in the world can easily fail to achieve that. The craft of filmmaking is a lot more complex, and I think that it's that understanding of the basics of what moves an audience that keeps the original KING KONG fresher and more involving than than two remakes that seem to have been driven by advances in the state of the art. If you don't have the wit to achieve the smaller effects, chances are, you won't have the wit to make the bigger effects mean anything.

Stacie Ponder said...

Welcome, supreme, and thanks!

I'm glad we can all agree on at least one thing: Turn of the Screw isn't so hot. :D

"I'm sorry I haven't kept up very well with your own forays into creating horror--how have you been approaching it?"

Honestly, I'm all over the place, at least for now. I'm working through ideas and techniques and subgenres more than anything else, which leaves me jumping from deliberately trashy B (or Z) grade movies to something like Ludlow, which was born of a desire to work within certain parameters (tiny cast, minimal locations, etc).

The scripts I have sitting around range from a good ol' slasher movie to another Ludlow-style mindfuck...I guess that much like my tastes as a viewer, my efforts as a creator random wildly, from the subtle to the spectacular. The more I write and create, the more I'm noticing recurring themes- not always intended- at least in the more serious stuff. The hokey movies are simply meant to be fun, silly, and entertaining.

I'm still such a newbie as far as being a movie writer and maker goes...I figure I'll whittle down my true intent (for lack of a better word) over the course of a few years. Or I hope to, anyway.

Chris Cooke said...


can I just mention that we are screening this on Sunday 1st November in Nottingham UK - sorry to sound like I am selling something on your site - I'm a fan, but I think any big screen outing of this beautiful, brilliant and genuinely frightening film should be mentioned

RC said...

I've always subscribed to the theory that suggestion is scarier than spectacle. Now that I think about it, the films that have scared me the most, all tend to contain a lot of suggestion and a little bit of spectacle. Examples: The Ring, High Tension, Rec, The Orphanage.

I think the prevailing wisdom, that suggestion is scarier than spectacle, is a result of the fact that too many horror movies overuse spectacle. Classic movie monsters like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers, all ceased being genuinely scary early in their second or third filmed outing, because you see so much of them. I guess you become desensitised, or you realise they are just a dude in a mask, and they subsequently cease to be scary any more. Recent Film Club selections Burial Ground and The Beyond are also good examples of horror movies that are simply not scary because of their overuse of spectacle.

On the flip side, "horror" films with no spectacle at all (I’m thinking of Boogeyman, as a rare example) can be suspenseful for a little while, but do tend to become a bit ho hum when you realise there’s no actual threat (ie no spectacle).

I still think suggestion is scarier than spectacle, but I’ll concede you probably do need a very small amount of measured spectacle to capitalise on that suggestion and make a film really scary. All IMHO, of course. :)

Christian A. Dumais said...

I think the bigger problem with characters like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers is that once the writers go out their way to humanize them, it's effectively over.

Rob Zombie humanization of Myers was a gross misstep. There was something unsettling about him simply being an unstoppable force of evil in the original films that worked, and to reimagine him as the result of poor parenting feels like an awful cheat.

The problem with Kruger was he became more of a comic figure than a monster as the franchise wore on.

But you're right, less is more with these kinds of characters is the best way to go.

Man, I miss the monsters.

Riccardo said...

I'm normally a "show me the monster" kind of guy but saw "The Haunting" for the first time recently and was blown away.

I consider the first time I saw "Alien" as my scariest movie-going experience ever because once the chest burster appeared then all bets were off, literally *anything* could be next. I watched the movie through my hands until the full-size alien appeared which was awesome but a little bit of a let-down because it wasn't really as scary as the chest burster and I could just watch it normally (while still being on the edge of my seat).

"The Haunting," however, never really released tension. That wallpaper. And there are so many weird things to look at in the house, weird statues and figures everywhere.

Anonymous said...

"Rob Zombie humanization of Myers was a gross misstep. There was something unsettling about him simply being an unstoppable force of evil in the original films that worked, and to reimagine him as the result of poor parenting feels like an awful cheat."

Agreed. And even more, part of what I always found creepy with Michael is he seemed to come from a typical nuclear family.

Christopher said...

I so dearly heart The Haunting, book and film. ... The first paragraph of the book is the finest opening of a horror novel ever, IMO: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."